San Francisco is famous for its steep, straight streets but probably even more so for the cable cars that climb up and down them. The cable cars are both a tourist attraction and a good way of navigating the city without exhausting yourself with steep climbs. If you are in the city, you should definitely have a go on one of the cars if you get chance.
There are three routes operating through the city. The first goes along California Street, but is one that is less often used by tourists because it doesn't service the attraction per say, with it running between the financial district and Van Ness. Much more often used by tourists and also much more convenient to tourists are the two lines that run between Fisherman's Wharf at the sea front and Union Square, which is the main shopping area in the city. The lines all operate from 6am until midnight daily so are a great way of getting between the two areas that are popular with visitors due to there being lots of hotels in both areas. The cable cars aren't cheap though. If you have a Muni Passport, which is a transport pass that allows you use of all of the buses, streetcars and cable cars in the Municipal System for a set duration and price, then you can use it for free, otherwise it is a fairly hefty six dollars for a single journey regardless of where you get on or off the car. As with many public transport systems in the United States, you must buy your ticket before you board the car and you can do this at the various ticket points along the route.
The two routes I have mentioned are particularly busy if you join them at either end of the route and you will find that you have to queue for a while, particularly at Union Square. The cars are also quite small, so they don't let that many people ride on each one. Having said that, if you are one of the last to join, you will have to ride on one of the footplates at the edge of the car - arguably the best and most fun way to do it, but you'll have to remember to breathe in when you pass other traffic on the way!
According to Wikipedia, the San Francisco cable car system is the last permanently operational manually operated one in the world and it is this manual operation that makes it such a fascinating and quaint way to get around. When you board the cars you can see all of the mechanisms in the middle of them and you can't help but have a lot of respect for the drivers who have to use more than a bit of elbow grease to get them going and then stopping again. The cars can only stop on the flat bits of the roads at the busy cross sections which makes it quite amusing when they stop all traffic in order to let people on and off. The cars themselves are very traditional and are exactly as you would imagine them to look; made with polished wood and lots of dark colours and you'll not be able to resist taking a picture of them.
Even though it is a fairly pricey way to get around, you should definitely have a go on one of San Francisco's most famous tourist attractions because they are a lot of fun and are actually quite convenient.
Cable car San Francisco.
San Francisco has a fantastic feature not found in many cities these days the cable car transport system which although is used by some citizens of the city these days they are mainly used by tourists to get themselves from down town San Francisco to fisherman's wharf.
The cable cars are quite unique unlike a funicular which is attached to a cable these are independent of a cable and latch onto the moving cable by gripping it when it needs to move.
For those who don't know San Francisco it is spread over quite a wide area built on undulating hills around the bay area. The cable cars are a major tourist attraction and it is great fun being able to hop on a cable car and great fun to have a ride on one hanging on for dear life up and over the hills. It is as exciting as going on a big dipper ride at the fun fair.
The first cable car first came into existence in San Francisco in 1873 and was such a success it was expanded throughout the city and new routes were introduced. At various times throughout the years some of the lines were discontinued due to the poor returns on the routes. It was found to be more economical to use overhead electric lines to power the cable cars but received a lot of objection due to its unsightliness. The 1906 earthquake put paid to its expansion due to the fires that occurred following the quake. Not only were the power sheds burnt to the ground so were many of the cable cars lost in the ensuing fires.
Over the years more and more of the lines were closed and all that are left now are three cable car lines. In 1979 the system was found to be dangerous and in serious need of repairs so it was shut for 7 months for remedial work to take place. In 1984 it was closed again to upgrade and repair the lines at a cost of $60 million.
How do the cable cars work?
At the end of the line there is a building called the cable barn which is the power house. There are massive wheels that are constantly turning and pulling the cables at the same speed at all times. The cables move at a speed of 9 and a half miles per hour. These cables run under the streets of San Francisco to the end of the tram route where it returns via another wheel at the end.
The driver, who is known as a gripper, lowers a grip into the cable housing under the road, it grips hold of the cable and the cable car moves along the tram line. When the gripper wants to stop the cable car he just releases the gripper from the cable applies the brake and the car stops.
The cable cars have seats in side or there is a standing board which you can stand on and hold on to poles. It is great fun on the standing boards but not suitable for children. The cable cars are not suitable for people in wheelchairs. The drivers have a bell to warn others of their approach and they have developed a competition amongst themselves ringing the bells which is held once a year.
The three routes are known as
1. Powell and Mason
2. Powell and Hyde.
3. California Street.
How much does it cost?
The normal one way fare is $5.
A one day pass can be bought from the conductor for $11 which is valid for buses as well as the cable cars so it is quite good value if you are travelling a lot around the city.
3, and 7 day passports are also available from various outlets around San Francisco.
3 days $18
7 days $24.
What a bargain as you can use these tickets on all the buses in San Francisco
How to get on or off the cable car.
If you get on the cable car at the terminus or turntable stop you just buy or show your ticket to the conductor and find a seat. If you are waiting at one of the cable car stops which are usually on a street corner and have a small brown sign on a pole. You have to indicate that you want the tram to stop do not attempt to get on until it has stopped completely. You can either sit down or stand up for your journey.
Would I recommend a cable car ride?
Absolutely yes, yes, yes because it is a unique and novel and thrilling way to travel around the city and the views from the cable car are spectacular especially if you are heading down to fisherman's wharf. As the cable car comes over the top of the hill you get a fantastic view right down into the bay and out to Alcatraz.